Feel The Rush: Birds D-Line Brings Heat On Hill, Saints
In what's become commonplace in recent years, the Eagles demonstrate impeccable late-season resiliency while many had shifted their focus toward the offseason.
It was widely expected that the New Orleans Saints, riding the wave of a nine-game win streak, would win handily against a floundering Eagles team lacking an identity.
Though an inevitable change at the quarterback position elicited a reason for optimism, it would take more than the improvisation and youthful exuberance of rookie Jalen Hurts to resurrect a dormant team and knock off an NFC heavyweight.
The play-calling featured new wrinkles, the ground game fired on all cylinders, and the oft-maligned offensive line didn’t surrender a single sack against a vaunted defensive front.
However, the Eagles’ front-four dominance is what ultimately fueled their 24-21 upset Sunday at the Linc.
In his three previous starts, Saints quarterback Taysom Hill cut his teeth as a mobile quarterback who presented challenges for opposing defenses. For perspective, the 30-year-old signal-caller had averaged 181 passing yards and 59 rushing yards in those three games.
Though limited as a passer, Hill’s athleticism and elusiveness didn’t appear to bode well for an Eagles defensive unit that had been routinely victimized throughout the season by misdirection runs and plays that stress defenses in space. If this Eagles defense was going to slow a high-powered Saints’ offense, a Herculean effort would be required from the defensive line.
As it turned out, the formidable Saints’ offensive line – anchored by left tackle Terron Armstead and right tackle Ryan Ramczyk – was no match for an invigorated defensive front.
Sure, Ramczyk, one of the league’s top tackles, managed to keep the uber-active Brandon Graham at bay. However, while Graham registered just one tackle, his linemates manufactured pressure in other ways.
Armstead struggled mightily to combat the length and athleticism of Josh Sweat, who notched two sacks, bringing his season total to 6.0. The 23-year-old edge rusher finished with four tackles (one for loss), including a crucial strip-sack on fourth down late in the game. Sweat, who played 25 snaps against the Saints, continues to flourish in a prominent rotational role.
As effective as the edge pressure was, the game was ultimately won along the interior. Aside from ascending second-year center Erik McCoy, the Saints have received below-average play from guards Andrus Peat and Nick Easton. Easton exited the game early with a concussion, but his backup, rookie Cesar Ruiz, didn’t fare much better.
Collectively, defensive tackles Fletcher Cox and Javon Hargrave combined for seven tackles (three for loss), three sacks, four quarterback hits, and a fumble recovery.
Hargrave, in particular, has come on strong as of late. The prized free-agent addition has accumulated 19 tackles (4.0 for loss), 3.5 sacks, and 11 combined QB pressures and hits over the past five weeks. The Saints' interior was severely overmatched by the explosion, power, and savvy hand usage of the well-compensated defensive tackles, prompting rampant misfires and rattling Hill.
The interior rush pushed the O-linemen into Hill’s lap, moving him off his desired spot and inhibiting his ability to step up in the pocket. The pass rush bonanza resulted in sealed off running lanes – which forced Hill to produce through the air. The injury-riddled Eagles’ secondary, held together by glue, clung tightly as the rush got home and put the game away in the waning moments.
The Eagles’ decision to heavily invest in the defensive line has been scrutinized by many over the years. On Sunday, it paid dividends.
– Andrew DiCecco (@ADiCeccoNFL) is a Staff Reporter/Content Producer for InsideTheBirds.com.